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Polanski hearing puts focus on documentary filmmaker

Attorneys quote heavily from movie in an effort to get the case against fugitive director dismissed.

February 17, 2009|Harriet Ryan

When a hearing gets underway this afternoon in Roman Polanski's attempt to have a 1977 child sex case against him dismissed, documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich will take a seat in the jury box alongside her cameraman.

The position allows a good angle for capturing action in the well of the courtroom, but it is also a fitting metaphor for the central role Zenovich and her lens have played in revisiting the case.

New information in her documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," forms the basis of the director's request for dismissal of the case. His charges of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct are grounded in revelations in the film, which HBO aired last year.

In court papers, Polanski's lawyers quoted extensively from Zenovich's interviews with former prosecutors and a defense attorney, and they submitted a DVD and transcript of the film to the judge considering the case.

The effect of the documentary initially surprised Zenovich, a former actress whose previous films were more lighthearted examinations of subjects such as a pan-European singing contest and a French criminal turned actor.

"It was never my goal. I just wanted to finish the film and get it out there so people could see it," said the 45-year-old who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young son.

Zenovich plans to tape today's proceedings with an eye toward a follow-up, but whether the movie gets the case reopened, let alone dismissed, remains unclear.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office opposed even putting the hearing on the court calendar because of Polanski's fugitive status. Prosecutors contend that Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza should not entertain the request for dismissal until the director surrenders to U.S. authorities.

"Polanski can't ask this court to do anything," Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick Dixon said during a hearing Friday.

Zenovich said she had tried to remain impartial, but was frustrated by the prosecution's emphasis on challenging Polanski's legal standing to protest his case, rather than the allegations of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct.

"I am shocked at how the facts are just being ignored," she said.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, declined to comment on the role of Zenovich's film.

"We will have plenty to say inside court," Gibbons said.

Polanski pleaded guilty to having intercourse with a 13-year-old girl who said he raped her during a photo shoot at Jack Nicholson's house. In 1978, Polanski fled to France, where he has lived since. His attorney had informed him that the judge overseeing the case planned to sentence him to prison despite the recommendation of a probation official and the victim.

Zenovich's film presents an unflattering portrayal of Judge Laurence Rittenband, now deceased, suggesting that he backtracked on the sentencing agreement and made fleeing the country an attractive choice for Polanski.

One former prosecutor interviewed said last month that he was under the impression the documentary would have limited release -- perhaps only in Europe -- when he spoke to Zenovich and had been careless with his words.

"A lot of that stuff I said was just off the top of my head," said David Wells, the former prosecutor.

Zenovich was first drawn to the case six years ago by a Times article discussing whether Polanski would return to the U.S. if "The Pianist" -- a film he directed -- was nominated for an Academy Award. Among those pushing authorities to resolve the case was Polanski's victim, Samantha Geimer. Her lawyer called the day Polanski fled "a shameful day" for the American judicial system, a remark that convinced Zenovich the case was worthy of a documentary.

"That just doesn't make sense," she recalled thinking.

Polanski won an Academy Award for his film, but did not return to accept it. Zenovich spent the next five years on her film. The director declined to be interviewed on camera, she said.

"He was very sorry, but he thought it would look like self-promotion," she said.

The documentary only briefly touches on the crime, instead focusing on the legal proceedings.

"The facts for me were never about what happened that night," said Zenovich, noting that the crime and Polanski's flight were extensively covered by the media at the time. "It was about what happened after that night."

She said Polanski phoned her after the movie was released.

"He thanked me for having courage to make the film," she said.

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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